At the end of 2020, the Portuguese public hospital was on the verge of collapse. In the midst of the Covid pandemic, nearly a hundred doctors had resigned at the same time. The government found itself seriously in default. But when it came to vaccinating the population, the whole country followed suit. Proof of a Portuguese temperament of submission to authority inherited from the Salazar dictatorship that fell in 1974? Teacher-researcher at Sciences Po Paris and author of a History of contemporary Portugal (Chandeigne, 2016), Yves Léonard does not believe it.
“In truth, until that date, the country simply did not benefit from the current National Health System, explains the teacher-researcher. And above all, the terrible epidemics of measles and poliomyelitis that hit the country before the 1970s are still remembered. The Portuguese population therefore has a strong awareness of the usefulness of vaccination campaigns. »
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Another explanatory factor, according to him: the political class and the scientific authorities of the country spoke with one voice. Their speech was clear, coherent, and they exposed with transparency the difficulties that the public hospital was facing.
A soldier in the foreground
The Portuguese and international media insisted on the role, certainly central, of the charismatic vice-admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo, appointed by the government to organize the vaccination campaign. He always appears in uniform in the media and forces sympathy with his references to the film series. Star Wars. “Those who spread misinformation are on the dark side of the force. Be a Jedi, protect your family and yourself” he thus skillfully made it known in the media in December 2021.
At the same time, the army communicated that the troops were vaccinated and the military was still present in the vaccination centers. Yves Léonard recognizes a “meticulous organization” of the Portuguese vaccination campaign, with the rigor that suits situations where lives are at stake.
A point of view very favorable to the only military institution, but that Manuela Ivone Cunha, anthropologist at the University of Minho de Braga, in northern Portugal, and editor-in-chief of the journal Etnografica would like to qualify. The anti-Covid “task force” was also made up of civilians, perhaps more discreet and less publicized but very present. For the researcher, the erroneous idea of a “vaccination campaign carried out by the army alone” is primarily due to the concerted strategy of the government and the military authorities to systematically highlight Vice-Admiral Gouveia e Melo.
Pushing the officer with a speech rich in war metaphors to the front of the media scene has made it possible to unite a people who would undoubtedly have been much more suspicious if the management of the pandemic had been the prerogative of political elites. “Even here, when crimes are committed by the military, the attention is focused much more severely on the political tutelage than on the military leaders themselves” points out the anthropologist.
Still, the recipe worked wonderfully. As for antivax, they are few in number and have little influence in the country. In a context where the memory of a society without a health system is still vivid, the questioning of modern medicine finds few followers. Nor has there been a powerful anti-vaccine current from the extreme right, residual in Portugal.
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André Ventura, the leader of the Chega (“Enough!”) party himself explained to CNN Portugal that after a few months of hesitation, he had been vaccinated, convinced by “reading international studies”. The far-right leader has even joined forces with other parties to defend measures to fight the pandemic, or at least refrained from defending a contradictory point of view. This would have been badly perceived by his electorate, a poor population particularly affected by the disease and who knows how to show, like all Portuguese people, great intergenerational solidarity. André Ventura, however, stood out in May 2020 with the proposal for a quarantine specially intended for the Roma minority.
The anthropologist Manuela Ivone Cunha notes, however, that the country still has vaccine skeptics, but that these “remain open and can let themselves be convinced by health professionals, as long as they are listened to and respected in their doubts”. Rosário Salgueiro, journalist for public broadcasting, adds that the Portuguese have kept a very high level of confidence in the medical profession and the nurses who, during the dictatorship, were “closest to the people”. According to her, the proximity between the generations also breaks the “filter bubble” in which are locked up many young people in the West who only get information on social networks. “Fake news is discussed at home, between old people and those younger people who have short memories”.